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West Virginia Slammed for High Costs, Low Quality of Privatized Prison Food

Before food service in West Virginia’s prison system was taken over by Aramark Correctional Services, the nation’s largest for-profit food service provider in prisons and jails, all meals were prepared by prisoners, often using fresh vegetables grown in gardens and greenhouses as part of a culinary arts program.

But according to a report released by the state Center on Budget & Policy (CBP) on September 12, 2023, the institutional gardens were discontinued and fresh fruit and vegetables mostly disappeared from prison menus after Aramark assumed kitchen operations. At the Mt. Olive Corr. Center, for example, a 2022 menu included bread or pasta for “[n]early every meal.” There was a “rotation of sugary desserts, but no fruit.” Of 70 lunches and dinners in a five-week menu cycle, only 26 included a salad, and one-third of those weren’t “from fresh greens but potato salad, coleslaw, and pasta salad.”

State Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) Commissioner William Marshall testified before a legislative committee in April 2023 about “the poor quality food being served in DCR facilities” that house juveniles. As repeatedly reported in PLN, the problems with sub-par food from services like Aramark have been well-documented in numerous other prison systems and jails nationwide, leading to fines, protests, riots and discontinued contracts. [See: PLN, May 2024, p.1.]

The CBP report, quoting a study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, noted that prisoners “suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease than the general public,” both conditions “caused or at minimum exacerbated by the typical prison diet.” The report noted several West Virginia prisoners who experienced medical problems—weight gain, high blood pressure and diabetes—due to poor quality food. It also raised security concerns. The American Bar Association calls it “a flashpoint for conflicts in prisons and jails,” noting that “complaints about inadequate food have historically been a common cause of prison disturbances.”

Since DCR contracted with Pennsylvania-based Aramark in 2015, more than $57.1 million has been sent out of state to pay for state prisoners’ food. DCR is exempt from state Purchasing Division requirements that contracts be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. Coupled with a lack of transparency, the report said this makes it “easier for the agency to hide conflicts of interests”—including a 10% kickback on prison commissary sales that also benefits Aramark through subsidiary Union Supply, which holds the commissary contact.

CBP made several recommendations for improvement, including changes to the contract bidding process for prison food services and prioritizing health considerations in prison menu planning. DCR also needs to comply with the state’s Fresh Food Act (W.V. Leg. Rule§ 61-10-1). All of which means the state should reconsider privatization of prison food services and return kitchen operations to prisoners and prison staff. The report was authored by former state prisoner Teri Castle, the CBP’s 2023 Criminal Legal Policy Fellow, and Sara Whitaker, its Criminal Legal Policy Analyst. See: The High Costs of Cheap Food: Eating in West Virginia Prions, CBP (Sept. 2023).

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